Portugal is treating migrants as citizens amid the Covid-19 crisis. Other countries must follow

, by Aimee Pearcy

Portugal is treating migrants as citizens amid the Covid-19 crisis. Other countries must follow
Prime Minister Antonio Costa emphasised there is a long way to go in the fight against COVID-19 in Portugal. Photo credit: PES Communications

In a world that is currently overwhelmed by fear and despair that has rapidly been brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, a recent piece of legislation introduced by Portugal has revealed a small glimmer of hope.

The country has recently announced that it will grant temporary residency rights to all immigrants and asylum seekers who applied for residency in the country before the country’s state of emergency for Covid-19 was announced on 18 March 2020. To gain access, asylum seekers must provide evidence of an ongoing request to apply for residency status.

Anyone with these rights will be given access to the country’s national health service, bank accounts, and work and rental contracts until 1 July 2020 at least.

It is not known exactly how many people will be affected by this policy, but recent government statistics suggest that in 2019, a record number of 580,000 immigrants resided in Portugal, and 135,000 were granted residency in that year alone.

So far, Portugal has been praised for its swift Covid-19 response

Portugal has been praised for its response to the pandemic, and the country has witnessed a fraction of cases and fatalities of its neighbouring country Spain.

The reason for this difference is not known for sure, but some doctors have suggested it is down to the country’s early movement restrictions, which were put in place after the country had witnessed only two deaths. Portugal also became the first EU country to open a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre.

It was recently announced that Portugal would extend its lockdown until May 1.

“There is still no light at the end of the tunnel,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in an interview on TVI television on Friday. “We have to walk through this tunnel and the more disciplined we are now the faster we will get to the end of it.”

Migrants and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19

Many roadblocks prevent asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups from accessing the help they need, which puts them at particular risk of Covid-19.

Multiple factors, including financial costs, fear of deportation, language barriers, and fear of abuse or discrimination all act as barriers when it comes to getting help. Nations need to remove as many of these barriers as possible to make it possible for everyone to get the help they need.

Improving access to care will drastically curb the spread of the virus, ultimately leading to better overall public health outcomes.

Portugal’s response towards migrants is in stark contrast with other countries

Unfortunately, many countries are using the crisis as leverage to further marginalise those who most desperately need support.

The Trump administration has used the threat of the virus to suspend Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) legal proceedings until May at least. The U.S. has also closed its border to all new asylum seekers, even though novel coronavirus infection rates are far higher in the United States than in Mexico. There have even been reports that the United States may consider returning asylum seekers to their country of origin.

Meanwhile, Canadian President Justin Trudeau has declared that anyone who attempts to cross the Canada-US border to claim asylum would be turned back - despite making exceptions for temporary foreign workers, international students, and permanent resident applicants.

In the United Kingdom, it was recently announced that Home Secretary Priti Patel has refused to accept unaccompanied children from overcrowded refugee camps in Greece. Last year, Greece removed migrants from the social security system. They remain unprotected today.

A successful response to the pandemic relies on collective action

Throughout history, crises have been catalysts for change. So far, the corona crisis has revealed the lack of national preparedness across most of the world, and perhaps even more importantly, the lack of solidarity between nations.

However, this could prove to be a global turning point. The crisis has led many countries around the world to take drastic measures that were previously considered unthinkable. In particular, Portugal’s pragmatic policy has revealed how it is possible to minimise the spread of the virus while respecting the dignity of those most in need of help.

It is a small start, but an example of how important it is that countries extend their critical services to all residents - regardless of where they were born. Now, more than ever, the health of each nation depends on everyone who is living in it - not just those with a government-issued ID card.

One of the big questions now is: are we waiting to return normal? Or are we ready to fight for these changes and build something different once this is over?

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